OCULUS GRIFT

Two naive observations and one thing true -

At a recent event, some strangers and I were able to have, for many of us, our first experience with the Oculus dev kit. Two smooth, sharp operators had conjoined a Kinect camera to a headset and we could all, once demos wrapped, dive on in.

For me the effects were hallucinogenic, disocciating — for the rest of the evening the world felt glazed over and lit like a movie set. For others, who stared longer into the abyss, there was nausea. Future shock and provocation.

(i) First observation. Whoever wore the headset—in the midst of chatter and drinks and other exchanging, engaging human shapes—faded into the background. They were there (on the demo stage in our midst, taking up physical and visual real estate) but equally they were not there. They were not part of the conversations or of the social reality being woven in the room, they were a thing—to be looked at, but not to look back. We spoke past them, about them.

At its recent developer event, Google gifted foldable cardboard headsets to developers in attendance. A company manufactured and sold clones. I bought one, I tried it, I gave it to my girlfriend to try.

(ii) Second observation. This was adorable and it was also sad. I watched her hold the small box to her eyes, spin around, and look this this way and that as she watched a semi-interactive cartoon: a cute, thwarted woodland creature chasing an elusive article of clothing. She laughed and smiled and stood there. I was disarmed, delighted. But soon the room felt vacant. The little box, which she held aloft in her hands, had sucked her inside like a vacuum cleaner. What was left was a sort of animate husk, the waiting place for a consciousness gone adventuring elsewhere. I walked around her, tidied up, washed dishes until she was back.

(iii) Something true. Oculus takes something we are already too familiar with (a person being there but not there) and holds it in glaring, razor-sharp relief. It does this with a particular twist.

When you and I are in the same room and I am sending an email or playing on my iPad or reading a book, I am not really there with you. My attention and my self have detached and gone sailing in the ether. They have nestled into a veil, into an intangible reality that’s on a different plane from the tangible world. I can be called upon—summoned back—but I am not here.

The novelty of Oculus (and Google Cardboard and everything else) is to map this competing, intangible reality (that we all drift into) onto the tangible, volumetric space that it competes with.

In my girlfriend’s movements—holding the hardware up to her face, spinning and looking around, right in the middle of the room—her absence becomes conspicuous. Now, her absence is also conspicuous when she wears headphones and nods her head to music, or when she stares deeply into her laptop screen. These acts, too, are conspicuous and take place in the real world, even as they are directed beyond it. The Oculus twist is that, when she roams about and swivels her head, she moves in the physical, tangible world in order to interact with the intangible one. To interact with, but to never enter into.

After she had finished with her VR exploring (it was brief, only about 5–10 minutes), she and I got ice cream cones and took a stroll in the park. Sitting on a bench, we talked about the eeriness in all this and decided that what’s new is the phenomenon of a digital world stacked so neatly and precisely on top of the physical world. It was as if there were a separate invisible plane grafted inch-by-inch onto the visible one. An ethereal veil draped across brute matter. And here she had been right at the intersection, her body acting in two worlds but her attention squarely in one.

Her presence and attention had vanished for me, but they left a shadow—a silhouette of consciousness, trapped between two planes—tracing the outlines of where they had gone.

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